Paine Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Thomas Paine, who argued against monarchy and for American independence from Britain in a pamphlet that sold out its first edition in a matter of days, became the talk of the American colonies. Many of the American revolutionaries credited the persuasiveness and passion of Paine’s arguments for their decision to declare independence.

Summary of Event

In the summer of 1775, in spite of British troops firing on American colonists at Lexington and Concord the preceding April, very few colonists felt that the English oppression should be answered by taking up arms and forging an independent nation. American independence Even George Washington Washington, George Washington, George;Thomas Paine’s Common Sense argued as late as May, 1775, that such ideas were “wicked,” and that reconciliation was still possible. In June of the same year, Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas;Thomas Paine’s Common Sense expressed a hope to remain with England. Half a year later, however, both Washington and Jefferson prepared to risk everything to wage war against British rule, and both cited a small pamphlet as changing the minds of their countryfolk, if not their own: Thomas Paine’s fifty-six-page Common Sense (1776), first published anonymously. [p][kw]Paine Publishes Common Sense (Jan. 10, 1776) [kw]Common Sense, Paine Publishes (Jan. 10, 1776) [kw]Publishes Common Sense, Paine (Jan. 10, 1776) Common Sense (Paine) [g]American colonies;Jan. 10, 1776: Paine Publishes Common Sense[2210] [g]United States;Jan. 10, 1776: Paine Publishes Common Sense[2210] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 10, 1776: Paine Publishes Common Sense[2210] [c]Literature;Jan. 10, 1776: Paine Publishes Common Sense[2210] [c]Philosophy;Jan. 10, 1776: Paine Publishes Common Sense[2210] Paine, Thomas

Paine had arrived in America only a little more than thirteen months before his pamphlet appeared, fleeing scandal in England for infractions he had committed as an excise officer. He was guilty of the minor charge of signing for shipments he had not inspected, but British authorities were mainly interested in stopping his protests against what he considered unfair labor practices in the excise offices. Thus, Paine came to America already set against what he saw as an abuse of authority by the government of King George III. Because he had made his case in an eloquent and widely distributed pamphlet, Case of the Officers of Excise (1772), friends in London supplied him with a letter of introduction to Benjamin Franklin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin;Thomas Paine before Paine sailed to Philadelphia, in the hope that the American editor and publisher could find a use for his skills.

Only a few months after landing in Philadelphia, Paine took over as editor of Pennsylvania Magazine [p]Pennsylvania Magazine and lost no time in becoming an outspoken advocate of political freedom, especially denouncing the practice of slavery. Paine’s antislavery Antislavery movement convictions led to the essay “African Slavery in America” "African Slavery in America" (Paine)[African Slavery in America] (wr. 1774, pb. 1775), in which he denounced New World slavery as another instance of the British crown’s suppression of human freedom. Paine’s argument became part of Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Declaration of Independence, U.S.;and slavery[slavery] which argued that slavery was an unjust British imposition. However, delegates to the two Continental Congresses who were from slaveholding states threatened to withdraw unless all references to slavery were removed. Paine’s second pamphlet of 1775, A Serious Thought, Serious Thought, A (Paine) included most of the other major points of the declaration one year before it was written.

The stage was set for the appearance of the most important essay of Paine’s career. Near the end of 1775, friends arriving from England told him of a provocative speech England’s king George III had made before Parliament, denouncing as treasonous American complaints about not being allowed to choose governors and being taxed without representation. George added that the complainers needed to be silenced by force. Paine had been about to publish his call to armed resistance to British authority, but he decided to wait until the transcript of the speech reached America. As it turned out, Paine guessed the moment correctly, to the day, and both the belligerent speech and Common Sense appeared in Philadelphia bookshops on January 10, 1776. Within days, it had been read throughout the Thirteen Colonies. Within a week the first printing of one thousand copies had sold out.

A facsimile of the title page of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776).

Instead of rushing out a second printing from the same plates, Paine took a few days to enlarge the essay with additional arguments and produce a second edition, taking advantage of the enthusiastic responses of his readers. On January 20, Paine published six thousand copies of Common Sense, and this edition, too, sold out in days. At the end of three months, Paine had sold an unprecedented 120,000 copies of Common Sense.

Common Sense begins with an iteration of what later became known as a “social contract” theory Social contract theory of government, derived from the writings of Thomas Hobbes(1588-1679) and, more directly, John Locke (1632-1704). Societies, Paine argued, begin as mere conglomerations of people, but soon develop laws and means of protecting individual freedoms—in short, a government, which Paine calls a “necessary evil.” The original formation of government according to this theory occurred in prehistoric times, but, Paine suggested, the process could be seen more recently in the case of colonies, such as those in North America.

In contrast to this “natural” development of government, Paine begins the second section of Common Sense with a description of the “unnatural” notion of monarchy, Monarchy;Thomas Paine[Paine] the false exaltation of one group of people over another. In his third section, Paine invokes the title of the essay, insisting that common sense and plain language will convince the reader that reconciliation with England is a vain wish. In the fourth and final section, Paine overcomes objections to armed struggle with England. Concerns about the English navy being the most powerful in the world are answered by Paine as a nonissue because very little of any American-British confrontation would take place at sea. There also were concerns about the major financial burden that a war would place on the colonies. Paine answers that this, too, should be of no concern because, if necessary, the valuable frontiers could be sold for more money than what any war would cost.

So eloquent was Paine’s rhetoric in this anonymous pamphlet that readers were certain that one of their favorite orators had written Common Sense. The most common guess was Benjamin Franklin, but both Samuel Adams and John Adams were suspected. Ironically, neither Adams could have persuaded the American public the way Common Sense did, largely because they were formally educated, and the middle-class tradesman Paine was self-educated, much as Franklin was. Paine’s appeal to ordinary reason, everyday language, and “common sense” went straight to the heart of the average American the way a learned treatise on political philosophy never could.

For all that Paine’s express purpose was to appeal to common sense and plain truth, the success of Common Sense was due in no small part to his masterful appeal to human emotions. Emotion;and political persuasion[political persuasion] Political persuasion and emotion To the American willing to forgive British slights in the name of peace, Paine rubbed their noses in those slights, creating vivid pictures of the worst enormities, real or hypothetical, perpetrated by British soldiers. The result was the mass persuasion of Americans teetering on the edge of a decision.

Significance

The rhetoric of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was pivotal to America’s embracing the idea of independence from England. Not only is the pamphlet an enduring part of American literary history, its very publication also was a carefully orchestrated political event, consciously timed to coincide with the appearance in American periodicals of King George III’s inflammatory speech before Parliament. A reading of the correspondence of the leaders of the American Revolution American Revolution (1775-1783);Thomas Paine[Paine] in the first six months of 1776 makes clear that it is not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that Paine’s pamphlet was the greatest motive force impelling American patriots to war with England.

Yet as tied to the moment as Common Sense was, it is still read not just because it is an important founding document but also because it eloquently and persuasively presents a political philosophy Political philosophy of absolute egalitarianism, Egalitarianism echoing the more densely intellectual theories of John Locke, but doing so in a popular style that appeals not to the intellect alone but to, as the title suggests, common sense.

Half a year before the Declaration of Independence, Paine had already outlined the declaration’s principles in Common Sense: the origin of governmental authority in the people governed, the consequent right of the governed to set aside a bad government, and a demonstration that the current colonial government was indeed bad.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aldridge, A. Owen. Thomas Paine’s American Ideology. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984. A thorough analysis not only of Paine’s writings in America but also of the earlier writings and events that shaped his thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fish, Bruce, and Becky Durost Fish. Thomas Paine: Political Writer. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. A brief, readable overview of Paine’s political writings for the Revolutionary War Leaders series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. A bicentennial celebration of Paine’s contributions to the intellectual background of the American Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarthy, Pat. Thomas Paine: Revolutionary Patriot and Writer. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2001. A brief, nonacademic summary of Paine’s life, including a detailed discussion of the role of Common Sense in the American Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCartin, Brian. Thomas Paine: Common Sense and Revolutionary Pamphleteering. New York: PowerPlus Books, 2002. At 112 pages, this book is a short examination of Paine’s work as a pamphleteer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paine, Thomas. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. Edited by Philip S. Foner. New York: Citadel Press, 1945. A classic, accessible, and well-prepared edition of Paine’s works. Also available online at http://www.thomaspaine.org. Accessed August, 2005.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times. London: Allen & Unwin, 1973. A study of Paine’s revolutionary thought and activities from a British point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Jerome D., and William F. Ricketson. Thomas Paine. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A revised edition of a volume in the standard Twayne’s U.S. Authors series. A good starting point for studying Paine.

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